Let’s start to whittle this field down some. First to go is the MiG. The MiG-35 is a much improved version of that old terror of the late-80s, the MiG-29. It has much improved avionics, and maintains the type’s famed agility. However, no one has actually bought the MiG-35, so parts availability may be a concern. While the avionics are better, they’re still not as good as what comes standard in Western types. Plus, even with the new electrics and polish, it’s fundamentally a short range fighter, with relatively few hardpoints and small gas tanks. Also, being Russian, it’s harder and more expensive to maintain. So it’s really unsuited to our needs.
Next down is the Su-35S. On paper, it looks like a phenomenal fighter, with a big, powerful radar, great agility, tons of hardpoints, and long range. However, it’s doesn’t really have much in the way of ground attack capability with guided weapons when compared to western types. It can’t actually haul that much weight, especially for it’s size–it only carries about as much as the significantly smaller Super Hornet. Plus, being a really big Russian fighter, it promises to be an expensive maintenance nightmare, with high life cycle costs. As Fishbreath pointed out, it’s limited to Russian missiles currently. While western weapons could be integrated, we’d have to foot the bill, which probably will murder the highly competitive unit cost. And did I mention political pressure from other NATO members? So this one is out.
We can also eliminate the F-15E Strike Eagle without too much trouble. It’s a big fighter with plenty of range and an impressive hauling capacity to be sure. Also, it’s got a two-man cockpit, giving the advantage of a second pair of eyes and someone to mind the guided weapons. But it’s also very, very expensive to procure and operate, and really doesn’t have the fancy built-in sensors and avionics that we’d expect in our modern fighter. Some countries have procured versions with electronics that are better than the USAF-standards, but those are a mixed bag, and bring up questions of spares availability. Plus you’re stuck paying for all of the integration and testing yourself, which really isn’t ideal, and further drives up the cost. It also invites delays. We can do better for our money, so the Strike Eagle strikes out.
Much as it pains me, we find the F-16E Viper (Block 60) to be the last eliminated in the preliminaries. The Viper is basically the benchline combat fighter of it’s generation, doing just about anything you could ask of it reasonably well. And the -E model adds a fancy AESA radar, some integrated jamming equipment, a revamped cockpit, and conformal tanks (with the added side effect of completely ruining the lines). One might think this would be a shoe-in, because it’s reasonably priced to purchase and operate? So why did it fail to make it to the final round? Simple: it’s just not a big enough improvement on the -C Viper. When you’re confronted by the prospect of S-300PMU2 and S-400 SAMs and big, new Flankers, you want something more than last year’s fighter with a few more optional extras added. Plus, while the F-16E is reasonably priced for a modern combat fighter, the bill won’t sit well when it comes time to put the budget up for a vote. Borgundy is currently an operator of F-16Cs, and while it would make sense from a spares perspective, the bill for what will be seen as a ‘glorified upgrade’ won’t sit well. They’ll want a capability gain, as will the Aviation General Staff. When it comes down to it, in the fourth dimension of fighters, politics, the F-16E is all wrong. So, unfortunately, we must eliminate one of my favorites from this competition.
On to the Final Showdown!
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